Just north of Esbjerg there’s an unassuming car park, surrounded by anti-tank barricades* littered on the sand. There’s a utilitarian sign with distinctive-looking yellow lettering, which seems only to mark the dune on which it stands. But a path cuts through the dune. The only hint of where you’re going is a sliver of eerie glass dome just seen above.
Turning the corner behind the dune reveals a surprising juxtaposition of a stark utilitarian concrete bunker, and a pathway which continues, hobbit-like, by cutting cleanly through a mound of grass and opening into a modern glass square.
In fact, there is no mystery here, at least not to anyone who has come even for a brief visit to Esbjerg, and who has followed the inevitable recommendation to visit this world-class museum.
The concrete bunker is the raison d’être of Tirpitz Museum, at
Blåvand Strand, approximately 30 minutes from Esbjerg. It’s a relic of the German occupation of this area during the second world war, when the Germans built several sea defences along this coast. The fascinating story behind the Tirpitz bunker lies in the fact that it was never actually used. An elaborate plan was hatched in 1944, to build a bunker with turrets for housing naval guns. There were many challenges in designing a site on land for a naval gun, not the least of which was that the gun itself proved too heavy to to make the journey across Jutland. Before they could resolve these challenges, the war ended, and the Tirpitz bunker became a neglected concrete shell on Blåvand Strand.
Today, visitors put their jackets back on as they enter the bunker itself, and that chill in the air is echoed by a chilling atmosphere. Imaginative touches are used inside the bunker to help give you a sense of how it would have been used
But the really satisfying experience of Tirpitz Museum comes from exploring the rest of the building, with its exhilarating architecture, and discovering some of the history of the West Jutland coast. There’s a room inside which recreates not just bunker life, but other aspects of the occupation, in a topsy-turvy and disorienting set of exhibits, combined with personal histories from the people of the area. It’s saddening, moving and hopeful.
The most dramatic part of the museum is the amber room, where the ‘gold of the west coast’ is beautifully showcased with interactive and immersive exhibits. The suggestion of ancient towering dark trees with orange light dripping like sap towards you is gorgeous.
Another room takes you through the life of the Wadden Sea and its Jutland coastline, from prehistory right through to its modern role as a summer getaway. Again, there are enticingly-designed exhibits to go with your personal audio commentary, but the fun really starts when the blinds start to close, every half-hour or so, for a multimedia projection designed to delight.
My favourite part of the whole experience of Tirpitz Museum though, and the reason I keep going back, is the architecture itself. When the idea of a modern museum was first mooted in 2012, there was reluctance to allow a building that would disrupt the landscape. But then it was discovered that the large mound beside the bunker was not a natural hill, but a man-made structure, created as the bunker itself was dug out. Hence the challenge of designing a space that would fit within the scope of the existing mound, and an architectural journey that has offered up a building full of surprises and dark corners, while also somehow being light-filled and inspiring.
So the building itself is worth the visit, not to mention the excellent Danish-inspired lunch menu in the New Nordic-chic restaurant: more black walls suffused with light. And the museum shop has, yes, the usual magnets and branded pencils, but is also a great stop for Danish design for the home, and local handmade products.
A world-class attraction has been created just half an hour from Esbjerg, and it’s no surprise that it’s won several awards, both for the architecture and as an attraction. I’ll be heading back very soon, with my season pass, to see the new special exhibition about the surprising history of mines on the west coast.
If you’re in Esbjerg, and haven’t been yet, don’t miss out. If you’re planning a visit to the Jutland coast, put it at the top of your list!
Address: Tirpitzvej 1, 6857 Blåvand
Admission: Adults – 145 dkk, children under 18 – free
Opening hours: 10 am – 5 pm (Check website here for details of off-season restrictions)
*They’re called Czech hedgehogs. Thank you Google. #whatatimetobealive
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